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Though this series of wanders in the Dutch natural environment is about seeking and going into places well apart from the urban landscape, following the Driebergen wander, I had a planned surgery on my right hand—a small procedure, but involving stitches and immobility. This is written clumsily with my left hand. I made two trips the weekend prior to the surgery during brief sunny moments, visiting two large parks at either end of Utrecht’s urban sphere to the east and west. I wanted to experience the difference wandering in these blended spaces where nature and urban environment meet.
1. Wandel 2(a) Máxima Park, Saturday.
The sun appears after a rainy morning and finds me lost in a computer screen, searching for freelance work. I wrench myself away and get on the bike, heading west over the Schippersbrug to the Groendijk. It’s a familiar route, gliding under old willows and past the century-old houses of de Meern. I’m feeling for a place to sit under some trees, maybe do a session of qi gong. After too long “achter de scherm” I long to absorb some energy from the elements. In my bag is tea and an apple.
Past the sport facilities on Parkzichtlaan I reach an entrance to the middle of Máxima Park, gliding between high honeycomb “walls,” delicate cast cement installations that border this part of the park, partly covered with red and green leaves of climbing vines. Next to a high arching bridge over a long pond I lock the bike, golden beech leaves murmuring above. I begin walking along the paved path toward the end of the water. A moment later I step off onto the grass. I didn’t come here to walk on pavement.
Máxima Park is at the heart of the newest area in the city of Utrecht, Leidsche Rijn – named after the remaining aspect of the Rhine river that flows through it on the way to Leiden and the sea. It has been developing for 20 years and encompasses the older villages of De Meern, Vleuten and unincorporated rural areas in-between. In the center is a museum seated at the location of an old Roman Castellum and near where a Roman ship was found in the basin of the river – now on display inside. The park emerges west of here and spreads in a vaguely fish-shaped form west and north, surrounding the one-street village of Alendorp and its last-century houses, crossing under the Vleutensbaan and ending at the village of Harrinsenplaats. The park was designed by landscape architect Adriaan Greuze in 1997 after winning the proposal call and officially opened, by Queen Máxima, in 2013. It has the feel of something meticulously designed to incorporate the desires of multiple stakeholders, with specific areas for recreation and sport, for climbing children, for thirsty and hungry strollers, garden watchers and with an emphasis on open sky, space, and useability. It has a cafe and reconstructed curving waterway along the old Rhine path, here called “Vikingsrijn,” where you can manouever large swan-headed pedalboats let by a dock next to the cafe terraces. It has something for everyone, and checks all the boxes of what should be included in a city park in a newly developed neighborhood. It is green, full of trees and bits of water and benches, meandering paths lovingly paved for the ease of strollers and other wheeled devices, and on a sunny Saturday in November well-trod.
This section of park has large swaths of young beeches planted in evenly spaced rows more reminiscent of a tree farm than a bosquet. There are hundreds in this area – just beeches and grass. I’m puzzled. Working with the ecologically-minded garden designers of #Wilde Weelde this year, I am sensitized to diversity in planting that invites and supports many forms of life. Across the water I see a grove of something else and make my way to it. By the other end of the bridge are moderately full-grown trees in the cypress family – the leaves now red, their fringes reminding me of Japanese maples. They carpet the ground in crimson.
This grove of 10 or so trees on the water’s edge occupies a small corner of this area, sitting in-between a thicker wood (of beeches) and the rectangular pond. The ground under them is carved by rivulets from the pond into marshy islands forming an attractive place to sit and look out over the water. There were gaps in the tall grasses along the water‘s edge where I could see the bridge, sky and various gulls scooting about, and it was relatively peaceful. I sat under a tree and ate my apple, and felt for whether I wanted to stay there for a while. Couples and families passed by, and there was a young couple playfully taking photographs of each other 10 meters from me. I could not settle into the contours of my mind, nor could I simply enjoy the liveliness of my surroundings. I wanted to feel alone.
I had seen signs for a Japanese garden; hoping to find something interesting I followed them. In my life in New York and Philadelphia I had experienced many traditional Japanese gardens and enjoyed the qualities of unfolding vistas and the sculptural varieties of trees and plants. I had to walk quite a ways in order to cross the Vikingsrijn so I could enter. On the other side of the water, the garden seemed to be hiding behind a perfectly even berm of rhododendron.
I was still walking in the grass, zigzagging through more bosquet of identical young beeches, their newness naked under a now steel sky. I entered the Japanese garden, on a path passing between two berms. Rhododendrons in large even masses rode gently along both sides of a winding path, flanked with a curved pond featuring large stones—rarities in the lowlands. A section on one side planted with Japanese pines – four in a row! – and some azaleas for variety. Tucked away in further curves were grassy areas. One was occupied by two rabbits, munching on the grass. One was older, with mottled colors and very chill – it didn’t mind my presence. The other, a younger brown one, was quite skittish. I knealt in the grass and watched them for a while. People strolled by on the pavement behind me. This was my wildlife interaction for the day, and moment of stillness. All three of us had dropped out of the sky into this neatly manicured armpit of grass, but there was no looking-glass-or tea house-to be found.
The sun behind a shelf of cloud and a cold wind dropping the temperature encouraged me to return home. Other parts of the park hinted at by signs, such as the Vlindertuin (Butterfly garden) would have to come another time.
After struggling with how to write about my experience in Máxima Park, I acknowledge I haven’t given myself much time to explore it. The park website offers a lot of information and an interactive map. Studying the map you see more than a dozen different features highlighted, each of a different sort, to the point that you might think, if you had not visited, that Máxima Park resembles more of a theme park than green space. It is somewhere in-between.
It also occurs to me that the point of a park in general, and Máxima Park specifically, is not to be ‘natural’ at all – but to integrate. As with so many areas of this city, the parks and green areas are a binding factor masquerading as open space. Like the invisible meridians in the energetic body of Chinese medicine, the parks and green spaces are as much a part of the dwelling constructions as the streets. It has a seamless quality, where the green is not distinct from the surroundings but interwoven with it, and thus never without the energy of development and occupation. This tension is not negative. My experience of Utrecht is that the green spaces – Griftpark, Kromme Rijn, Biltsegrift & Zilveren Schaats, Oog in Al and the Merwede’s Kanaalweg, Strand, and Keulsekade; the greenway along the Vecht to Slot Zuilen, Julianapark, even the hofs and old monastic medicinal gardens of the binnenstad, and the meandering greens along its singel, help each neighborhood maintain its integrity, each with its own unique qualities and feeling, while being part of a collective whole. This is something that dense cities like New York lack. As a cyclist moving around and through the city from any direction to any other you experience continual moments of sweetness in how the fabric of each neighborhood fits like a singular piece in a quilt.
2. Wandel 2(b) Fort Rijnauwen, Amelisweerd Estate, Sunday.
Last day before surgery. Today I finish cooking the last dishes for the next ten days: ratatouille, Lentil soup, roasted root vegetables, rice, potatoes, salmon, chicken thighs, quinoa with feta, cassoulet. I start in the morning, early, because the sun is coming out in the afternoon, according to “buienradar.” I finish around two and hop on the bike in low, full sun – sunset in 3-ish hours. It feels fantastic to be out in the golden light. After a short detour by the Exbunker exhibit in Wilhelmina Park—a mature, elegant park with curving pond and many large trees in fall colors—I thread myself between the old Tolhuys and the Kromme Rijn to the backside of the Uithof, facing Fort #Rijnauwen.
I first encountered this route when I did reconaissance for a Walking Meditation workshop I led for students at Utrecht University during their first-ever “wellness week” this past spring. On a map the areas of #Amelisweerd and Fort Rijnauwen are clearly just next to the modern Uithof campus, but in my mind and body they had been two distinct places, totally unconnected as destinations.
It’s delightful to set off from the “back corner” of the airy, open campus on the tree-lined allée Zandlaan that makes a straight 1,2km shot across green pastures in the direction of the small burg of Bunnik. In this place one can imagine for a moment a time a century ago when asphalt roads for buses and cars didn’t exist. It’s one of the magical influences of bicycling on the infrastructure here that has always impressed me: there are many areas where as a bicyclist (or walker) you move through spaces between built areas absent the presence of motorized vehicles of any kind. The resulting quiet is key to the experience. In pasture-lands between de Bilt, the Uithof, Zeist and Bunnik are car-free havens for bicyclists, walkers, and sheep.
I left my bike locked by a tree on the edge of the Hoge bos, the triangle of forested area between the fort and the Uithof, and then walked on the narrowest paths into the middle of the wood — whatever side trail looked least used, I took. Being Sunday and sunny there were many people out. I ran into someone I knew. But this was quite a special walk. The atmosphere of this tiny forest is of a portal whose older origin is not fully diminished by the control exercised upon it. It is relatively wild: unlike the tightly curated Máxima Park, the trees have a considerable and lively mix of undergrowth and deadwood, and there’s a nice mixture of different species, though nothing very unusual. Older beeches tower with their smooth skins and the eyes that remain from being limbed-up, oaks and a handful of birch, ash, chestnut, hawthorn mingle throughout. I had the idea to find a place where the sun would be on my face, but there are no hills or knolls clearly inviting this – and in the end it was also cold, so I decided to walk paths I didn’t know. At one corner on the Bunnik side of the Fort, five different paths come together to connect various places – there is a wayfinding post with direction indicators for Houten, Bunnik, Utrecht, Zeist, and Fort Vechten. Though busy with couples and families in every direction, I felt again the sense of being in another time where the horse and carriage would not have been out of place. Indeed, the area of Rijnauwen and Amelisweerd are heritage land and estates that have been in place for 200 years or more. Sights of the homes of knights and nobility, they often have many hectares of land shaped for pleasure and preserved from extensive agricultural use. Their forms – geometrically shaped forests with wide and narrow paths; allées connecting vistas, suggesting movement across domains; designated areas for animals, for orchards, parterres and enclosures for herbs or flowers—are similar here to their formal cousins in France and England, sharing a long history that reaches not only into the past of the Netherlands, but of Europe overall since the Renaissance and before. To speak of this as nature is to deploy the word, ‘nature’, as an 18thc. lord or horticulturalist might – a dance where the human’s insight is helping nature to show her best face. It is a version where nature is an artist’s material, rather than an ancestor, host, or fellow traveler. To walk in such gardens and forests is illuminating, gives pleasure, but is not a place where connection to the invisible power of primordial environments is very accessible. This I recognize as my dilemma, the one which inspired this series. Where to be apart from the hand of human ingenuity?
I walked from the fort south on a long allée lined with old beech and oak lit from the side by the sinking sunlight, leading to the 18c. #Oud Amelisweerd estate house, now a museum, and to de Veld Keuken, a farm-to-table restaurant in the old coachhouse next door. This sits at the southern heart of the landgoed, where I’ve been many times but always coming from the south, and always by bike. It’s a lovely, lively place on the meandering Kromme Rijn, in a place where the river has flowed since ancient times. Naturally it was quite busy, but I managed to have a hot chocolate on the terrace, gazing out over the landscape, pretending this was what I sought. I returned to my bike with the sun on my shoulder, heading below the horizon. A place where it is so pleasant to walk with feet on dirt and sand, surrounded by some ecological diversity and history, and yet so accessible, is a balm even if it isn’t remote and wild. Is that a problem?
At the most basic level, why leave the house at all to go outside? Especially if you have a garden, like your house, and relish time alone? Ming Kuo, a researcher in psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has published results from years of controlled studies on the impact of green spaces in urban environments and natural spaces overall that suggests they are more than “amenities” or provide space and service to essential species, but serve important roles in shaping how people behave towards each other, criminality, psychological stability and physical health. The impacts are eye-opening – a brief couple: Blighted urban neighborhoods where abandoned lots were converted to parks and gardens saw a 9% drop in their crime rates. A stay in a forest for three days increases the number of the immune system’s natural killer cells 50% – and is still heightened above pre-forest-walk levels a month later. The story of Kuo’s research and her own surprise at the significance of the results came to me through the podcast Hidden Brain last year – here is a link to the recording, the episode called “Our Better Nature.”
Wandering in a park or a landgoed, I understand that it’s purpose is not to provide an experience of nature – it’s purpose is to provide culturally-conditioned open space. Parks such as Máxima and the estate grounds of Amelisweerd are curated experiences on-purpose – so they will not satisfy the same needs as a walk in places allowed to be (or preserved as) natural, but they still feel necessary to me as part of the fabric of where I live, what makes it liveable.
My reference points for parks also suggest bias to my analysis – growing up in southeast Pennsylvania, parks on the edges or outside of cities tend to be preserved nature around exceptionally special features of the landscape such as natural rivers and waterfalls, and elevated landforms. Wissahickon Park for example, along the stream of the same name, descends through a 30-meter gorge along the western flank of the city from several springs to the north. This area was frequented in the early 19thc. by spiritual practitioners attracted to the remarkable natural beauty and energy of the place. The waterway began to develop into an industrial resource with mills along its length as the century progressed. The city realized it was going to lose a valuable source of drinking water and moved to preserve the watershed and also provide a space of light and air for citizens living in the pollution of the industrial age town. Today the 5km2 Wissahickon Park is semi-wild, forested and crossed with narrow trails for hiker, horse, and mountain biker – leaving room for solitude and the inherent energy to appear. I also lived for many years near Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead’s 19c. Central Park, which was pioneering in providing a 9.7km-perimeter English landscape garden-style park and incorporating “recreational areas” seamlessly within broad areas of naturalized forest and rocky outcrops. These “wilder” areas of Central Park are host to hundreds of species and transport one away from the feeling of urban life.
But even in these cases, the intention is still to create a green space for the enjoyment and edification of humans – a public garden expanded into extraordinary proportions, in a land where there is so much room for such things. They are a space of remove from the idea of concrete, stone, asphalt and motors, from the density of living in close proximity to many strangers, an “antidote” to the end of the pastoral age brought by the rise of industrialization.
In a nearly new city park such as Máxima there is a superficial remove from stone and concrete, but the curated feel highlights its urban dependence. Rijnauwen and Amelisweerd, having pre-industrial origins, open small windows to a past world, but merely whet the appetite for a world where the human’s adventure in her own development is humbled a bit by the greater achievement of the ancestors – trees, rocks, water and sky— that she is descended from.
 Recalling the world of 1997, so far removed from the environment and social concerns of today—I wonder how many points of reference embedded in the winning proposal are still relevant.
 A landgoed is an estate in the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium), often serving as a public garden or green space. They can be several hundred hectares.
 Size of the NL landmass: 33,700sqkm, 18,5m people or 418/sqkm. Size of the state of Pennsylvania in the northeastern US: 116,000sqkm, 12.8Bn people but a mere 110/sqkm. Source: Wikipedia.
Note: this text has been edited for clarity since first published.
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Originally published in “Field Notes” November 12 2019
An earlier version originally appeared in “Field Notes” October 20 2019
It’s nearly 2020. In 2007 I started a blog where personal writing, poems, and other reflections would live. Since 2016, when I moved to the Netherlands, it has been mostly dormant. Over 9 years I reflected on my family, deaths, spiritual practice, changes in my city (NY) and posted the beginnings of my journey to another life, first as a nomad, then as an art student in Europe, trying to start my life over. But now it feels like that journal needs another home, where randomness fits. I’ll be archiving all of what came under “Leanander” (after a great-grandfather) at Tumblr and starting a new site here at stjenkins.com. Stay tuned.
This was a year of research and recovering. After graduating last year, everything had to stop for a while. The Master’s in fine art is like being shot out of a cannon. I began learning Dutch. I had left NYC with a gold-standard resume for working with senior executives in finance, after 10 years with UBS & Morgan Stanley. I researched the job market here in all sectors and looked for administrative roles like I held in NYC, but got nowhere, especially not with beginner Dutch, my middle age, and a high-level university humanities degree instead of secretarial school. So over the summer I concluded that there was no falling back on office work after all, it seems I have to commit to this change of life I engineered again and again, despite financial risk and fear of it totally impoverishing me into old age. It never stops being completely daunting.
Since the late summer I have been exploring some new installations outdoors with wood, metal and yarn, and drawing more now that the weather has turned wintery. I began to research artist grants here. I’m also starting a side business as a communications coach for non-native English-speaking media professionals, called “Beyond English” (http://www.beyondenglish.nl), after working with one client at Utrecht University all this autumn, which I really enjoyed. Sometimes I sell home-made (organic, gluten-free) foods made from what I can harvest from my small garden.
I somehow turned 50 this year, and celebrated by traveling back to the US. I was able to visit my Pennsylvania and NY friends and family and also enjoy an advanced Qi Gong (ancient Chinese health practice) retreat in upstate New York with my community. I miss the Shambhala buddhist and qi gong community in North America a lot; though there are long-established branches in Europe as well, there isn’t a diverse and supportive community in my little city, just a small group that is challenged to grow. It has been a contrast that I didn’t realise would be so stark, or have such a strong impact on me. Nonetheless – nice as it was to visit past places, I was glad to return to the Netherlands. I’m very lucky to live in such a place, where the overall society seems orders of magnitude better at taking care of its fellow beings. It’s been two years and a few months since landing here; 5 years since New York was “home”. The thing I mainly miss is the amazing, diverse landscapes of North America and seeing friends and family. Sometimes it feels disorienting to live in such a small country that nonetheless projects itself as large, with a lot of self-importance. You can cross it in 3 hours.
In the new year I plan to do more writing in addition to developing visual/environmental work, and creating more stability for all of that. I hope to hear from you if we haven’t been in touch for a while, And if you are coming to northern Europe, stop by for a visit!
Liefs, en warme groeten van Nederland,
- Art: www.susantylerjenkins.com
- Instagram: sujenlake
- Biz: www.beyondenglish.nl
- Send me a postcard: Kanaalweg 89, 3533HG Utrecht | Netherlands
October 2, 2016
These days I am in Utrecht, the Netherlands, enrolled as a Masters student at the University of the Arts (HKU). A collaboration of logistics malfunctions and too much perpetual motion has stymied my attention to this venue…however it is still where I think out loud from time to time, and conduct experiments.
Just lost an hour of life–
A leather-apron-clad girl climbs
and moves the hands of the clock
I watch helplessly
at the table, my coffee cooling by a half-eaten sandwich.
Have I simply carried this hour since October?
Or did I use it well, somewhere along the way
not knowing I was spending it?
What happens to the accounts of those
who pass from this life between spring &
fall, when their hour is missing –
does it accelerate their demise?
My father left this world
just as tiny pale flowers were emerging from trees, and
my mother, the same year, as leaves skittered across pavement
in the hospital parking lot.
A year of time contracting,
sharpening before vanishing altogether–
like a lick of saltwater
stinging your face.
March 27, 2016. Harlingen, the Netherlands.
A metal ball – visiting or bouncing? in the pinball machine
it is mating season, after all.
The ball rolls down, slows, then kisses off a bumper
sometimes it pauses for a moment, testing gravity
feeling for magnetism
then drops off, strikes another place,
or is flipped back to the starting point by the
realisation there is more to look at
no rest until it catches the “bard-hole”
That’s the problem with being round.
Since last writing I’ve been on a deep dive into studying art-making, studying myself as a student again, and studying myself in NYC again…
Intense, wearying, joyful, painful, sad, insightful, fattening, irritating, depleting financially, and overall very worthwhile.
I found a living situation that is at once incredibly fortuitous and awkward, and have had plenty of opportunities to watch my irritation and resistance get triggered by someone else’s irritation and resistance. It’s returned me to bodhicitta practice, which is the only way I feel able to short-circuit the churning mind that is reacting to situations instead of letting them go.
I also did further training as a dharma teacher (also helpful in the live situations), so I might be able to support the community of meditation practitioners wherever I land next year.
As far as the art-making goes…I love my mixed-media class, where I work on my own projects. Started slow, and have been working at a fury pace the last week or so to finish one large piece, and a few smaller ones. Meanwhile, I studied drawing full-time in October and part-time in November, which revealed a lot of limitations and pedagogical frustration. Perhaps after 3 years of drawing classes I might be producing things freshly, and as enjoyably as when I am making assemblages, painting, writing or singing, but it’s not feeling any more natural than before I came…in fact, less.
My first instructor had me focus on how I use line to describe the figure…so I gradually developed a bunch of beautifully-outlined figures, but no volumes, expressions, environments, etc. Then I switched to part-time and that instructor disdained the outline altogether in favor of structure, vectors, responding to the movement of the pose, including the background of the studio and how one uses the page. All useful things to think about, but now I had to completely rewire myself and produce very unsatisfying results, instead of building on what I’d spent a month developing. Like learning to play music, or speak a foreign language, the process of becoming masterful at drawing is mystifying.
What I confirmed through this process is I am interested in drawing as a way to capture human expression, the face, the experience of lives intersecting with the world at a given moment, and the qualities that make a beautiful drawing in general, whether realism or abstract. I made some advances in exploring these aspects of drawing, but realized finally that I have to do more work on the street without the formality of instruction shadowing me.
You can see some of the other drawings I liked in my sketchbook.
I returned from nearly 3 months in Europe to turn around and go to Colorado for a week of Qi Gong practice with my teacher. I also managed to attend my Aunt’s 80th birthday party in between. A crazy amount of travel.
While in Europe, I was hitting the pause button on the art-making, on the mental momentum of graduate school portfolios, so that I could spend some time re-assessing. I delved into exploring places and volunteering in various meditation programs, as well as doing a lot of my own meditation practice. I visited Vienna, Brussels, Berlin, and Copenhagen, investigating the livability of these places, meeting and making friends, and visiting a few art schools. I also explored with the support of the Shambhala community in Europe some improvisational dance, performance art, and began finding many more connections using my singing voice that I had abandoned for most of the last 30 years. It was a fresh and rich summer, everything you would expect a summer traveling around Europe to be.
Beginning next week I’ll be in NYC for three months. Upstate now at Eric’s, my resting place between places. Both here and the city generally are like my “home turf” where I feel “returned.” In this place, aside from continuing to explore the path to my future through classes at the Art Student’s League and elsewhere, I will be reflecting on what all the travel experiences have produced in my mind.
One very clear message I was receiving over and over is that I should be using my voice – people enjoy hearing me sing, and singing comes naturally to me. Further to that, I made a very strong connection to a women’s singing/performance group in Brussels that I met the director of last spring at Dechen Choling – the group called Patshiva that I posted about on Facebook. What they are doing – polyphonic choral voices performed with movement, contemporary dance, costume, light – is transformative and amazing work. It’s something I’ve looked for my whole life without realizing it. And they have been doing community work as well – a residency in a poorer neighborhood in Strasbourg, and teaching workshops at festivals like the summer festival at Dechen Choling. Empowering women’s voices. There is something very magnetizing happening there. And in Brussels, where they are based, also happen to be two university art schools. Still, I really want to use this return to home turf to give some perspective on everything I have been accumulating by way of “research” this year. I will have some opportunity to do some teaching this fall as well, which also usually helps me process things. Through this stage, my next move will become clearer.
At the moment however it’s Sunday, I’m here in Spencertown for the week. I venture into the basement to swap clothing and encounter again (as I do every time I return) the volumnity of my stuff. All the things I’d pulled out in June to sell now…plus luggage and boxes of practice materials, dharma books, art supplies…all my competing aspirations and artifacts of my nomadic life filling the whole of space. (At least, that’s how it feels). Although I shed a lot of possessions when I moved into storage, and have shed about half my wardrobe since then, there is still too much. I feel overwhelmed by the task of severely editing my possessions to match my current vision of my life.
Which is changing all the time, will change again and again. I’ve enjoyed the lightness and simplicity of living from a suitcase. Being without stuff frees up so much time and mental energy. As soon as I perch somewhere though, things begin to accumulate again. I have a lot of Ratna so it’s inevitable, even as a nomad. (One of the five Buddha families, Ratna appreciates the wealth of the world…and all of its stuff). Then my Vajra Buddha aspect (sees the essence of wisdom apparent in any situation, applies clarity and sharpness) takes a look around and says “enough! Wipe the slate clean!” So I put myself through the ruthless (but healthy) editing process and then the whole cycle begins again. Part of the “volumnity” is two piles of half-finished sculpture project began this year that I “should” return to. I began to feel the urge to torch the whole pile. Storage unit too. Freedom.
I also did my monthly bookkeeping…and felt the pressure of the next 3 months in the most expensive city in the world on my dwindling bank account. I’m not going to “really” run out of money for a while, but I definitely have gone beyond my budget for the “exploring” part of my transition…partly because I have been spending money on various forms of temporary housing pretty much all year. So I’m beginning to dip into the funds set aside for studying & its attendant expenses.
At the end of this grumbly, overwhelming day, Eric out of the blue asks…”after these two years of wandering, what vision do you see for your life? Just wondering – will you have money after you go to school? How will you make a living?” All kinds of DOUBT and panic swamped me. Not questions I can answer easily. While I feel (fantasize?) I have a clear sense of what I’m doing, on being pinned down I have to admit it’s all just a speculative brew of ideas I’ve collected from observing other working artists mixed with my various competing aspirations (time for some Vajra clarity there.) WTF am I doing? How did I go from being this person who worried about her 401K and spent years rehabilitating herself as financially “responsible” to someone who had faith that if she followed her inspiration things would work out? And now—moving to Europe to join an unpaid performance group? NUTS. I actually pictured myself (briefly) back at a desk at UBS with a steady paycheck, good health insurance, a regular schedule. But quickly saw that move as the one I’ve made repeatedly when I feel too overwhelmed by the panic I’ll not survive the perpetual uncertainty.
To find a livelihood in creative work that feels true and necessary requires living in this continual uncertainty. There’s no “safe” way to go about it – having money to live on the past two years while I’ve delved into what I care about most has inured me somewhat to the reality that I’m not some carefree world traveler with every curiosity an open door I can step through. In the next 2-5 years, I really do have to build a whole new life AND livlihood from the ground up and it is terrifying.
In Europe, living out of a suitcase, away from all the artifacts of the life I’ve led, everything seems so clear. And here, so complicated (is that any surprise?) I can continue to de-complicate, stuff-wise, but know I need to ask for some help – it’s a lot of work to go through everything and try to cut my possessions in half again. And realistically, life is complicated, no matter where I end up.
This overwhelm and panic is also where I’ve tripped in the past with relationships – it feels “safe” to make a haven in another person’s life and hide there (or try to), as many people do. I’ve written elsewhere that generally I don’t like life to feel too comfortable – I equate it with being asleep, in the cocoon – yet when I realize how exposed and vulnerable I am, I panic and long to jump into the nearest “safe” place, which sometimes is another person rather than situation. In either case, I realize there’s a key Buddhist teaching here (probably several) – the teachings on the Bardo or intermediary state between death and rebirth. In the Bardo it’s groundless – no longer with a body, mind is just flying wildly through some kind of space. It’s said that when we begin to panic in that state, we’re not trusting in the inherent wisdom-nature of our mind, sometimes called basic goodness, or buddha nature. From this doubt we feel the need for external confirmation – so we begin to look for what we think is a familiar (comfortable) situation. Rebirth is the accident that happens on the way to enlightenment (someone said that before me). We (formless, but with ability to know, hear, see) gravitate towards some couple having sex and boom – we’re conceived for another trip around the samsaric world. Recognizing this is what’s happening tames the panic a little for me, enough to take a few deep breaths and see just what is, in this moment, to trust that my inherent nature can lead me. And from that, maybe I see what to do next. As in today, this hour.
It’s remarkable to me that somehow this is now possible – all these years of practice seeing the thinking process of mind and (sometimes) recognizing how it rarely helps to just think my way through confusion. Confusion is another word for the panic. Not trusting that I have an inherent connection to wisdom, if I just allow it to emerge and illuminate. Practice has cultivated a tiny ability to withstand intense fear and see past it. I don’t know how it all turns out – and that’s ok. At least, I can remind myself of this from time to time.
It’s been nearly a year of traveling since my long stay at Karmé Chöling, after closing up my life in New York in 2013 and embarking on a sea journey to a more meaningful life and livlihood. I have some reflections about how my time there, and some years of dharma practice in general, have affected my life. Nothing earth-shattering yet it feels right to offer these thoughts. One aspect is meditation practice, which has developed more dimension and relaxation that filters into my days in subtle ways. I have more patience and appreciate myself and others more, yet have much less tendency to solidify identities. Especially in relationships, I am not as inclined to feel embarrassment or inadequacy when there is a misunderstanding of any kind, especially of the heart. I still experience potent periods of overwhelm, doubt, discouragement, confusion, desire, frustration – but they no longer feel endemic to my existence, as I see so much of it is in common with everyone. Although I have deep-seated habitual modes of protecting myself, I am more brave in how I communicate, most of the time, and see more quickly when I try to manipulate situations or make things “turn out” in some pre-conceived way. Most significantly, I am allowing myself to fall in love unabashedly, again and again, after a couple of decades of keeping the world at arms length. For all who have been a part, wittingly or not, of this fragile awakening, thank you for the tremendous gift of opening my heart. It feels good to know it is still alive.
Still, I wish I could experience this open heart with all of its inspiration and energy more. I lose contact with it a lot of the time. It seems to only be accessible when in honest communication, difficult and fear-inducing though that is, with another human being. When all pretense about hope, expectation or desire is recognized and let go, and we stop trying to protect ourselves. So easily seen in hindsight, so hard to achieve in the moment. The dance with vulnerability often seems crazy, unsensible, destabilizing—and yet the alternative perpetuates so much more pain.
I am writing from Vienna, my last day of a long visit here which included staffing the half Dathun in Hungary, a profoundly deep retreat for such a short time. I head to Dechen Chöling for the rest of the summer, which will fly quickly but promises more chances to dance and fall and evolve my understanding. My boat still has a lot of sea to cross before finding a port – see you along the way.
[cross-posted on Shambhala Network]